This section of 1 Corinthians at large (i.e., 11:2-14:40) is concerned with behavior within the church and in particular with the behavior of Corinthian Christians in the worship service (11:2-16). In order to understand the conflict we need to take a look into the socio-historical background and the meaning of head covering therein.
Keener observes that “Roman women (like Roman men) covered their heads in worship, in contrast to Greek” and further that “societies which employed head coverings thus viewed uncovered married women as unfaithful to their husbands, that is, seeking another man (cf. m. Ket. 7:6; virgins and prostitutes, conversely, were expected not to cover their heads, since they were looking for men)” (C. S. Keener, “Man and Woman,” DPL, 585). We see therefore that the issue of head covering has religious significance in Roman Corinth. We need to distinguish, however, between the significance of head covering of men and of women (since Paul rebukes the men for having their head covered and women for not having their head covered). What then is the difference?
In Roman society a man would wear a head covering (i.e., part of the toga normally resting on his shoulders) in cultic settings. In such setting the man would take part of the toga and throw it over his head (capite velato). But who could be a man participating as priest in Roman society? Only those who had the money to pay for the processions and so on. Thus we see that the priestly office was hold by the elite! In Corinth the elite did what they always did; while praying and prophesying they covered their head and thus signifying to the others that they are the elite of the society; in other words by covering one’s head man is “showing off.”
But what about the women? What kind of woman would wear head coverings? A woman is depicted in a statue as matrona (a married woman) with palla (thin piece of clothing covering her head in public). This palla was a sign of a free and married woman. Thus it seems most likely that here in 1 Cor 11 Paul is talking about free and married woman. If such a woman would not cover her head she signaled some kind of sexual availability or at least independence from her husband and shamed him in public.
If it is right that anēr and gunē refer to husband and wife, then it is of importance to keep such in mind. However, this does not have to be the case at least in case of anēr. This man does not have to be married to “show off” in church about his social status. Even though the word gunē might refer to woman in general; here it needs to apply to the married woman because only a married woman would wear a head covering (if the historic-cultural background is rightly reconstructed!).
Paul starts out to commend the Corinthian believers for holding to the traditions that Paul had taught them. Then he applies the term “head” (kephalē) to the relationship between husband, wife, Christ and God. There are consequences to the question of wearing head coverings (vv. 4-6). Paul says that men should not pray and prophesy in the church with their head covered but that women should pray and prophecy in the church with their head covered, because a woman who does not wear a head covering in public shames her husband and herself. In shaving of her hair, however, she would shame herself rather than her husband. Again Keener, “By drawing an analogy between uncovered and shaven heads (this is the rhetorical technique reductio ad absurdum: Paul says, ‘If you want to be uncovered, why don’t you go all the way with it?’), Paul reinforces this sense of shame; when a woman’s hair was cut short or shaved, it was a great dishonor and symbolized the loss of her femininity” (“Man and Woman,” DPL, 585).
Thus we see that the topic is not about subordination of the woman under her husband (the woman is not a Christian second class; cf. verse 11) but the topic is what is signified by head covering in Roman society.
This then is followed by the argument from creation (vv. 7-12). In verse 7a Paul comments that men should not cover their head since they are the image and glory of God (Psalm 8 might be the OT background for such). In the second part (v. 7b) he however states that the woman’s glory is the man. Paul does not emphasize differences in quality, but this statement needs to be seen in chronological terms (since Paul as a trained Pharisee has surely heared about Gen 1:26-27). Here we need to see that the context is about married women who want to show independence from their husbands. Woman was created from man (v. 8; chronological priority of man) and woman was created for man (v. 9; showing function allocation). Thus women should behave in that setting (v. 10).
In vv. 11-12 Paul then correlates creation and new creation where Christian women are not independent of their husbands (v. 11a) and men are not independent of their wives (v. 11b). The differences shown in the creation account continue to apply (v. 12a) and are given by God (v. 12b). The argument from creation is then followed with the argument from discernment and propriety (vv. 13-16). In v. 13 Paul argues from cultural propriety which then is followed by the argument form nature (vv. 14-15) and the tradition of other Christian churches (v. 16).
Knowing that a whole lot more could be said about this passage, we need to keep in mind that the purpose is just a general survey of the content in light of Greco-Roman culture. As an implication for today’s church we need to be careful how culture shapes the church. That is, that culture shapes the church (and hopefully church the culture!) is inevitable but needs to be observed and if needed blocked by the church. Yet the church needs to be culturally relevant and understood by the surrounding community (at least to some extent).